A Picture of Mary Berry


Mme Sosostris read the name of the town as her train pulled into the station. This was the one. She never questioned her instincts but let them lead her where ever and she grabbed her large carpet bag from the seat beside her and glided towards the exit, taking her place in the queue of departing passengers. That small burning kernel of excitement reignited as she stepped onto the platform and she positively glowed as she handed her ticket to the ticket collector leaving him flustered. ‘Saffron Walden’. She worked the name around her mouth, savouring the vowels and took the first taxi at the rank. Not one of the waiting travellers in front of her noticed or would have minded if they had. A new town, a new adventure.

Part 1 The Gloating

Diane sat alone in the staffroom and ate a piece of cake. It wasn’t a very good piece of cake; it was thin and dry with baubles in place of any real craft; the type the supermarkets sell cheaply on rectangular trays to those who have neither the skill nor patience to make one themselves. She had arrived in the staffroom, purposefully early; the break-time bell was still 10 minutes away, plenty of time to finish and cover her traces. Alternating healthy bites with dainty sips from her tea, Diane worked her way, one little square at a time, through the entire tray.

Even while the bell was still a feint tinnitus trace in the school air, Henry Smythe ‘with an e’, one of the deputy heads, burst through the door. His face became a mottled montage: the initial surprise and then confusion as a pink wash bathed his cheeks. There then followed about three seconds of dawning understanding. Then came the famous anger, scourge of the Year 7s and NQTs, like a sped up film of thunder clouds rolling over a mountain range. Finally, the shiny pallor of panic as footsteps sounded down the corridor – the staff ready for the speeches and hungry for their tea, coffee and cake. He gave Diane a long look. She smiled beatifically up at him then took a little nibble from her carrot stick, returned to her book – a picture of innocence.

Desperate to find the culprits, Mr Smythe swung this way and that like a demented pendulum and there she was:  Bridget – like a waddling catastrophe, she came in through the library corridor door. She squeezed past Mr Smythe and glancing at the table – three empty trays, no cupcakes, not a biscuit left of the entire selection pack and of course, no chocolate cake, not even a bauble. All gone.

‘Oh Dear’, she remarked and turned sideways to brush past the counter and busy herself making a cup of tea while trying to ignore the feeling of nausea that threatened to erupt and ruin another school day. ‘Cup of Earl Grey, Mr Smythe?’.


‘Cup of tea?’

More staff were entering the room and all followed his gaze to the table. All looked surprised. Most disappointed. Some suicidal. One or two looked at Bridget – as she bustled in the kitchen looking for the Earl Grey.

General quiet discontent ensued.

‘What’s that?’

‘Your Earl Grey, one sugar, Mr Smythe.’

‘No, That! He was pointing at her mid riff and Bridget coloured and began to turn away. How rude, thought Bridget.

‘That!’ His voice had ridden above the general depressed banter.

All looked at where he pointed, not to his own mug which he completely disregarded but to Bridget’s. A chocolate brown semicircle like a lipstick mark frosted the top of Bridget’s special mug, the one only she used with golden Times New Roman proclaiming, ‘World’s Best Teacher. From the class of 2018. Thank you, Miss for always being there’.

‘Oh! Exclaimed Bridget – dishwasher must be on the blink again.’

She put down the unwanted Earl Grey on the counter, Mr Smythe hadn’t so much as acknowledged it and returned to the kitchen where she poured her tea into a new mug.

‘Not to worry, I’ll let Fred know, you know how good he is at fixing things.’

What Bridget hadn’t known was that her recent and alarmingly rapid weight issues had been the subject of staff concern and less kind interest for the last half term. At the beginning of the school year she had been a rather slim 40 something with energy, efficiency and an unerring ability to be there for everyone. The staffroom’s unofficial counsellor. Her recent decent into obesity had been a worry. Though some had less sympathetically observed that the staffroom biscuits had ceased to survive to Tuesday break at about the same time as her weight began.

Indeed, this morning, by some invisible and silent stream of communication, Bridget had been accused, tried and been found guilty of eating the cake. Although she did not know this for certain, she found herself behind the kitchen counter alone with only the picture of Mary Berry for company. Someone had blue-tacked a page from a colour supplement to the mug cupboard door. Mary’s cold, blue eyes seemed to bore into Bridget’s and she thought to herself how far her star had fallen in recent months. Was it simply her unaccounted weight gain? She couldn’t believe her colleagues so shallow. But as she stood pretending to read the cake-making competition entry requirements, stuck under Mary’s picture, totally isolated, she could have wept. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone asked her for an impromptu counselling session; she could do with one herself. 

Her colleagues had clearly been upset by the whole no cake situation; she wondered who had eaten it so quickly and so utterly. Only the students would have been so efficient. Of course! She knew how to cheer everyone up. She’d bake a huge cake for the competition and win or lose she’ll share it with everyone! She smiled at Mary and mouthed thank you as if she had been inspired by the matriarch of sweet baking instead of by her own sweet character.

‘Find something amusing, Ms Wensum?’ Mr Smythe had appeared ninja like at her side and his use of her surname and his jutty chin, meant she was in line for one of his famous put downs.

‘No, not really it’s just that Mary Berry here has given me an idea’.

‘I wonder if she has any other ideas? For instance, does she have any clue about who ate all the cake or perhaps what became of the jammy dodgers so recently donated to the tin by yours truly?’.

‘If she could only talk, Mr Smythe, she might well be able to point out the culprit’.

‘Then for your sake, Ms Wensum, perhaps it is best she can’t talk’.

And with that he actually sashayed away, pleased that his barrister worthy performance was so well received by the room. He pretended to talk to the head of maths, who had resumed glaring into his tea trying vainly to conjure a ginger nut.

How strange. Does he think I took the cake? That’s what happens to people when their sugar levels get too low. Bridget, who had never had a sweet tooth, was always surprised by the dietary dysfunction she saw in the people she worked with. The caffeine addiction alone was almost universal – only dear, sweet Diane and herself seemed to keep to fruit tea or spring water; everyone else positively shook with the craving of a junky and, Pavlov like, literally drooled for tea or coffee at the sound of the break-time bell. She found herself being ignored yet at the same time being the centre of attention. After two minutes she could bear it no more and left the room. Before she had taken a step into the corridor, the volume of chatter quadrupled as if the elephant in the room had had to leave before everyone voiced an opinion. And voice their opinions they did. ‘The whole tray and to think it was a gift to all of us from the Head for parents evening.’

‘But I was in here 15 min before break and there were three full trays.  And now not a crumb.’

‘There’s definitely something wrong with her.’

‘Quite impressive, if you ask me.’ But Simon from Chemistry’s half glass full attitude was glared down to ‘a terrible shame. Quite peckish, myself.’

‘Remember last July she came second in the staff race on Sports day?  Can you see her beating the head of PE today?’ General laughter.

‘Well, only if someone puts a crunchie on the finishing line!’ The laughter was almost hysterical now and it reached Bridget before she closed the door of her room. She needed to be alone.

‘Hello, Miss. Mind if I sit in the warm?’

‘Of course I don’t mind, dear. Are you alright? Come on, tell me about it.’

From across the room Diana had watched on in delight. This was better than she had dreamt. The head of year job was as good as hers and if she could get to be so senior within a year of joining, who knows? Diana had hardly had to do more than tip the first domino to make today possible. The money she had paid Mme Sosostris was proving to be the best £1000 she had ever spent. How did she put it to 19 stone Diane who had waddled into her shop on the high street just three short months ago? ‘Wouldn’t you like to have your cake and eat it, Diana?’

Where she could be in five years? Perhaps she’ll never have to spend time in the classroom with the revolting little termites at all before long. She was interrupted from these lovely thoughts by Glyn the PE teacher. He absent-mindedly (how else) scratched at his tanned thighs as he said something suggestive about the way she was holding her tea in such a firm grip. She had been

getting a lot more attention from the male members of staff as her figure had become lithe and her complexion clear. She turned her pert breasts to him and replied in kind. He didn’t seem to like that and actually winced at her reference to bulls and horns. Her confidence and almost predatory response forced him to back away. He made an excuse about the bell about to go and almost ran away in his expensive orange trainers.

Part 2 – The Cake

When Bridget got home that evening she found the white A5 envelop with the local Hospital Trust logo – a pair of hands clasped round a heart with, ‘To Serve, Protect and Heal’ curved underneath. She dared herself to open it. After nearly 3 months of disappointment this very last set of blood tests were her final hope. She read it twice and put the brief letter away in the drawer with the others. Nothing. No diagnosis, no ideas for further treatment just a glib report of raised sugar levels, the danger of diabetes and the same, exactly the same, recommendation as she had been given before: to attend a dietary clinic. She opened her fridge and looked in, almost expecting it to explode with cholesterol rich foods as if she had been in denial all these months and had been actually stuffing herself. But no there was only some salad and a bowl with half a tin of tuna in spring water saved from her main meal last night. She hadn’t had an appetite for weeks and could barely eat anything when she got home. As she flumped back down on her sofa she automatically reached under the cushion for her box of tissues and began to weep.

Her life at home was lonely but her school job filled her with purpose. Helping staff and students had given her a vocation and was a continual source of joy. Or had been. No one asks her for advice or help anymore and she sits alone at break in her corner of the staffroom that once was so busy. Bridget wondered why her weight gain had had such a dramatic effect on her professional relationships.  When weight gain is gradual, perhaps it is tolerated because we see the continuity

of the person and our love for them stays with them despite their change; in the same way as we don’t stop loving someone as they age. It’s incremental and almost invisible.  But when we suddenly turn into our monster our colleagues have no time to see the disability for what it is, no one saw this coming or had time to process. It had been like the Bridget they all loved had died and been replaced by a gross being who stole their biscuits. She understood them a little better now. After all, she could barely look at herself. But there was nothing she, nor medical science apparently, could do about that.

She’ll make the cake. She deliberately explored her cupboards and found that she had all the ingredients she needed. So she would begin to bake and moved around the kitchen with an efficient speed that denied her bulk and for an hour she was lost in creativity and even happy.

Having greased a 13-inch cake tin, she beat the sugar, butter and egg yolks together in a bowl using a whisk until she was happy with the smooth and creamy mixture. She worked precisely, efficiently lost in the joy of creation without a pause but never rushed moving with the inner grace of one attuned to baking. And all the time she was busy she thought of the faces of the staff as they saw this beautiful cake. Or rather cakes – there were over 50 staff. She would do three tiers! She added the shredded coconut and whisked the flour thoroughly and then added the baking powder and pinch of salt. And so she worked on until all three beautifully baked sponges stood on the airing racks.

Part 3 – Desperate Times. Desperate Measures.

Before bed she went online and check her blog and see if there was anyone else out there she could help. Her mother had once told her the only cure for self-pity was to help someone else. She had lived by that simple rule. No-one needed her advice tonight.

She dared herself to delve again into the world of alternative medicine. The sheer number of posts and sites was intimidating. Desperate people seemed to haunt the internet pity party chat forums like tics on a sad dog. But the NHS had let her down and she could not afford private medical treatment on a teacher’s salary.  A homeopath had given her a selection of identical little white beads and she had not bothered to keep taking them after six weeks of even faster weight gain. Tomorrow she would visit what was probably her last hope.

The next morning was a cold, crisp Saturday.  Dorothy, the school secretary, had recommended the lady who as Bridget hesitated outside her door, watched from behind the intricate net curtain smiling.  Dorothy had explained that, ‘You have to just go in at the time she gives you, go up the stairs and knock once and enter. She’ll ask you sit down – it’s like walking into a gypsy tent at a village fayre in an old story. ‘

In her desperation Bridget put aside the logical voice telling her how absurd to pursue the alternative and occult to solve her dietary issues, and she walked to the green door as one summoned to her doom.

‘Tell me a little about yourself, Bridget.’ Mme Sosostris had an indefinable accent, perhaps central European, thought Bridget, but soft, like something sacred buried under Persian rugs. Her host’s eyes clearly saw past all front so Bridget found herself skipping way past ‘a little’ and showed her a photograph taken only two and half months previously of a happy and much slimmer and pretty Bridget at a friend’s engagement party.

‘You are soo beautiful. What do you want, Bridget?’

‘Well look at me?’ And Mme Sosostris’s eyes bored deeply into her own. Bridget was suddenly flushed and uncomfortable. Her host smiled at the effect she was having and asked almost playfully, ‘What is it exactly you want me to do?’

‘Whatever you can do for me.’

‘It’s just that you seem so lovely.’

‘I’m not lovely! In only three months I’ve more than doubled my weight and I hardly eat anything.’

‘Have you spoken to your doctors?’

‘Yes, a whole string of them up to consultant level and dieticians too.’

‘And?’ As she asked these questions, Mme Sosostris had moved to sit next to Bridget on the ornate sofa and her presence flustered Bridget to total candour.

‘They don’t know. I suspect that they think I’m mentally ill and lying about what I eat.’ She recognised the rising passion in her voice but could do nothing to stop herself. ‘My cholesterol is off the charts and I’m developing diabetes and …’ she was practically sobbing.

‘And? What else, Bridget?’

‘I do not deserve this…’’she slapped her thighs that quivered under the cheap dress she had had to buy online. Bridget realised how low she had become. This was not like her. Whinging to a stranger, who was looking at her with such intensity.

‘Who knows what any of us really deserve. Anyway,’ she smiled and slipped off the curious, long gloves she wore, ‘it appears I may be your last hope?’

Bridget’s hand was taken into Mme Sosostris’, so warm and strong as she knew it would be.

‘Bridget, I can help you.’

And Bridget wanted to believe her, heart and soul.

‘But you must keep an open mind. You must trust me.’ As she spoke these last words Mme Sosostris had leaned closer so that her beautiful, flawless face was only inches from her own. Bridget could smell her scent, subtle, natural. It took all her will not to kiss her. Shocked at her reaction to this woman, she tried to pull her hand away but it was like it was caught in a tender vice, so absolute was Mme’s grip.

‘Now listen to me and remember, keep an open mind.’ A pause in which she could feel her host’s breath on her face. ‘You are bewitched.’

That was too much.

‘Bewitched? Really?’ Disappointment more than anger swelled up inside her. This time she was allowed to pull away but Mme Sosostris crushed velvet voice followed her to the door.                                                                                                                                                         

‘You work at the local school and just before your weight started to increase you got a promotion. And you have a special tea cup from some grateful students. Don’t you? And everybody at the school used to love you: staff, children, support staff, parents even the cleaners. Didn’t they? But not anymore.’

‘I didn’t tell you I was a teacher. How did you know?’ She heard a whisper of fabric and turned and Mme Sosostris was right there staring down at her, even closer than before. Bridget noticed the pale flecks of iridescent green in the hazel of her corneas. ‘I know, because it was I who bewitched you.’

And so Mme Sosostris begun to set the world aright again. This was a bit she loved most. For, when the world swings back into balance, the chaos could be exquisite.

Part 4 Magic

The music in the School Hall was making the stage curtains twitch and the fat on Bridget’s thighs pulsate. Mr Michaels, the new young head of Music, was obviously playing with his 1000watt sound system promised to him during his interview. The music was, Bridget guessed, hip-hop, the lights blinding and the sight of the teachers attempting to get down with the kids made Bridget more nauseous than usual. She carried a large box in which her cake balanced precariously and she knew walking through the undulating, posing crowd to the stage would not do. She regretted the fact that her cake dish was totally inadequate for the three tiered architectural wonder that was her Coconut Delight. She also regretted having given in to Mme Sosostris’ suggestion for a dress for the ball – bright blue and green satin cut quite tight that accentuated all her folds of flesh.

‘Wait and see’ was all she said when Bridget told her of her fears and that loose and tent like was more her style. Looking longingly towards the stage, she considered her options as her ears felt like they would bleed and then she saw her chance: a corridor over a meter wide had miraculously appeared between her position, just inside the double doors to the hall, and the stage steps. She went for it and almost giggled as the music’s repetitive beat seemed to accompany her footfall and how the tide of students and staff just followed the rhythm out of her path oblivious apparently to everything but the music and themselves. Even the sound of her heavy tread on the hollow stage steps was drowned by the percussive blast and so she made her way unnoticed to the far curtain, which twitched as if someone had just pushed through. Reversing through with the cake cradled in her arms she turned towards the row of three trestle tables standing at the far end of the stage – centre stage rear as she had learned in the school play last Spring. She had played the fairy god mother and had made and kept the dress she wore – she knew that one of her legs would not now fit the waist.  She could cry. Her breathing had returned to normal after the steps and she gently lifted the box off the cake and checked it. Silver and white, the icing shimmered in what little of the disco lights reached her. Piped words read, ’To the staff and students of Saffron Walden High School’.

The other cakes were nowhere to be seen; she knew that there were at least six other entries and wondered if there had been a change of plan. But no, there were the plates ready for the cakes, stacked to the side so she began placing them on the table around hers.

‘Oh, no!’ she said aloud, ‘These are dirty.’ Crumbs and icing littered each of the plates: fresh icing, fresh crumbs. She tentatively tasted one of the bits of surviving icing – absolutely fresh and rather good.  Had she missed the competition? So much bypassed her these days and being kept outside of the loop was becoming a feature of her diminished management role. But her cake! Should she put it away, hide it, pretend she hadn’t baked one? She felt her face blush in embarrassment, an embarrassment made worse by the sound of voices coming onto the stage.  Voices made louder by the sudden absence of music. The procession entered stage left in front of the curtain that hid the tables. It was the judges including the chair of governors, the head teacher, the deputies and the student senate presidents, who had clearly entered the other side of the curtain and were receiving a quite enthusiastic applause.  Bridget felt rooted to the spot and as the head-teacher finished her brief introduction, the curtains swished back, the stage lights and the spotlights swept

up the stage settling spectacularly on the trestle tables and Bridget who held an empty plate in each hand. The bare tables empty except for one large cake.

The judges froze as still as Bridget who just wanted to run. Mr Smythe’s instinctive lurch towards her broke the spell and his visceral roar of anger and exasperation set off a general laughter and whistles.

Bridget would have protested her innocence but the mayhem was total and no one was listening to anyone. Finally, she regained control of her legs and backed towards rear of the stage and would have fled stage right had a strong hand not grasped hers through the curtain and led her panting to the rear stage steps out into the school canteen.

‘Stay calm, Bridget. There is now to be no cake contest – I think yours would have won, by the way. We are up next. Stay calm. We are nearly there.’ Mme Sosostris was clearly calm and enjoying herself. And as it couldn’t possibly get any worse, Bridget followed her lead.

The half-hearted applause that followed Mr Smythe’s cynical introduction died totally as Mme Sosostris ascended the steps like a vision from a dark fairy-tale. The silence was absolute and she had all their attention simply by standing in front of them. All thought she was looking directly at them. All were both terrified and enthralled. Most of the assembled staff seethed in envy of her total command. She turned to Mr Smythe who had mentioned her ‘tricks and nonsense’ and by that look she promised him a personal magic show all of his own. He seemed to physically shrink under that stare and stepped back into the crowd. At an inclination of her hand a curtain was raised and there stood a raised platform about two meters in diameter with a partition surrounded by a long purple curtain. It stood on four steel legs with a clearance of half a meter so that it was possible to see that no trapdoor escape was possible. Two flights of steps allowed access to the two partitioned booths.

She then asked for the volunteers to come onto the stage.   Diane made her entrance in her beautiful, black figure hugging gown. Diane of course had immediately agreed to participate as this would be the perfect opportunity to shine as Bridget star was forever extinguished, literally taking her place – ‘all part of the service’, as Mme Sosostris had told her on the phone. The cake display had worked perfectly – it had been too easy to set up Bridget again; people do seem to see only those things that confirm their beliefs and now not one person: staff, student or governor could doubt her greed and seriously dysfunctional eating disorder.

Bridget waiting in the wings, conscious of Mr Smythe’s hate filled stare from the opposite wing, watched as Diane stepped up into the booth, waved at the audience and smoothed her beautiful dress over her supple curves, brushing off a little icing from the plunging neckline. 

Mme Sosostris called Bridget’s name and beckoned her amid the amused and spontaneous laughter and calls of ‘where are the cakes?’. Bridget looked into her reassuring eyes and carefully stepped up into her side of the booth. Mme Sosostris was explaining what was about to happen: a simple swap of sides from booth to booth. A year 9 boy and girl had been chosen to look over the booth – proving the solidity of the mirrored panel between Diane and Bridget actually crawling under the frame and finally reporting to the Head that all was ready.

Bridget felt exposed, all were looking at her all she could feel the ill will like a tangible force. She glanced at the mirror that formed the partition between the two booths and winced at the 25 stone stranger that squinted back.  To her relief, Mme Sosostris appeared at the front of the booth, smiled, winked and drew the purple curtains shielding Bridget from the audience. She heard the whoosh of the curtains from Diana’s side and then the expectant silence was broken by Mme Sosostris’ rich voice commanding attention, ‘Tonight, I will make you all believe in magic again. On the slow count down from FIVE our volunteers will change places and all will be in balance in the world!’

Billy Cuss from the year 9 band gave a very creditable roll of the drums and dry ice surrounded the stage as Mme Sosostris’ voice was joined by all in the countdown, ‘FIVE…. ‘

As the crowd roared, ‘FOUR’ Bridget began to shake and her entire body was seized in an enormous grip squeezing and shaking her. Mme Sosostris had said it would be more extremely uncomfortable than painful but a pain more than she had ever felt now swung her back and forwards, side to side and she screamed. From the next booth came a scream even more piercing more terror stricken and as the count reached ‘TWO’ this scream was abruptly cut off.

Bridget found herself gasping, laying on the booth floor, wrapped in the folds of what she took to be the curtain. As she calmed herself she felt a warm softness push under her head where she lay against the partition of her booth. A pink mass was oozing from the other booth and wedging itself in the two-inch space under the partition mirror. Sudden revulsion spurred Bridget to situp. The first feeling she had was of enormous strength and she actually sprang to feet, once she had extricated herself from the folds of her dress which now hung about her like a roman toga. But when she was on her feet she felt like she would float up and over the tall rich curtains that still surrounded her. Then she saw her reflection. It was like seeing a close friend or relation for the first time after a long separation. Bridget stared back at herself from eyes that were wide with wonder and from a face with a definable bone structure as if the sand had been blown from a lost desert palace.

As time sped up to its usual speed, the audience shouted, ‘ONE!’ and both curtains were pulled back. This time it was the crowd’s turn to scream. Shrieks, gasps and shouts of ‘Oh my god!’ and pointed fingers and phones. But it was not at Bridget they pointed. All eyes were on the booth next door. The booth all assumed was occupied by the transported Bridget. But not this naked Bridget. Bridget looked round the partition and squeezed within was a seething mottled pink mass. From within one of the folds two tiny eyes blinked in terror as huge arms sort to protect her modesty where the tattered dress had been absorbed into the creases of flesh like the wrapper of a melted toffee. But there was nowhere to hide from the sea of phones that had emerged from the dark like fireflies. With a terrified stumble and shriek the thing rippled from the booth into the wings knocking Mr Smythe and the Chair of the Governors into the delighted audience.


Mme Sosostris watched, bag in hand, as the train pulled into the station. She had no interest now in the events of three nights ago that were still splashed across the station news agent’s windows. The details of Diane’s humiliation, resignation and admission to a health clinic were of no consequence now. And she was neither pleased nor displeased by Bridget’s suddenly much heavier workload as the now official college counsellor. She had of course seen the graphic mobile footage in the local press and TV. but it had simply been all as she had wished. She did muster a smile as she showed her ticket to the handsome ticket collector she recognised from her arrival. Was it only three months before? She released her hand from her glove. He had recognised her too and he looked her in the eye as he punched her ticket and as her particularly warm hand touched his he collapsed with an electric ecstasy that trembled through him. She passed serenely on leaving quite a kerfuffle behind her. She heard some good Samaritan diagnose a fit. ‘No, not a fit, you fool! Life!’

Bon Appétit

The brown paper bag had been folded over twice, quite neatly – hemmed almost. Bethany stroked the smooth paper edges where the fold almost shone with tightness. Her finger tips tingled in exquisite anticipation but she squeezed the seal even more firmly together testing her will. The bag rested on her lap and its warmth invaded her loins insinuating into the taut nylon of her jogger bottoms. Bethany squirmed towards the slow spread of heat. She stole a glimpse down and saw the grease stain begin its remorseless progress; the fat on her sides and thighs quivered. Her fingers traced the seam, half prising the bag’s lips apart, exploring the crease, daring herself not to look. Fingers, moist with perspiration from excitement and heat, slowly turned first one and then the next fold. And as she knew it would with the opening exposed, the warm contents gave off their full aroma: a musky, meaty all-consuming waft of sweet grease and warm bun. She inhaled deeply and as she did a bead of saliva abseiled from the corner of her mouth into the bag.

Almost there, yet she still slowed her hand’s decent into the dark recess, fingers responding blindly to the warmth. There it was. She found then stroked the edge of the grease proof paper that enfolded the first of her cheese burgers. Grease from the meat or perhaps the cheese had seeped through the paper and she massaged its wonderful stickiness between her thumb and forefinger. Then, shaking and salivating, she pulled her hand from the bag and held her fingers just below her nose. Ever so gently she licked their tips.

Brian had been watching Bethany over his right shoulder for the past four minutes, transfixed. He felt like a voyeur: dirty but unable to look away. The huge woman seemed to fill the entire width of her hatchback. All space taken by Bethany James and the junk food wrappers and empty coffee cups wedged between the windscreen and the dashboard. He watched her suck her fingers before tearing his eyes away to the phone’s touch screen. He typed ‘Suspect still in the carpark’.

Bethany pulled out the first burger, ripped off the paper and in two bites she finished. She moaned as she felt the barely chewed burger slide down her gullet easing the ravenous craving torment that was her stomach. Within a minute she had finished all four burgers and hated herself for not ordering fries.

Near sated she adjusted the rear view mirror leaving another layer of greasy thumb prints on the glass. She considered her face. Bethany had once been pretty. Now she had become one of the fat androgynous whose life style and looks merge into the one pursuit: feeding. Only her eyes still held the promise of beauty, of a redemption. She noticed a streak of congealing orange cheese lodged in the corner of her mouth, whose end had become trapped in the fold between her chins. She pulled it free, slowly so as not to tear it. Its cooled texture was like spaghetti. Controlling the speed with practiced skill she sucked it into her mouth luxuriating in its smooth elasticity. She reached for the wipes under the armrest to remove the grease from her face. With the grease came the make-up and she stared at the suture marks along the top of her lip as if for the first time. Hurriedly she scrabbled for the touch up cream in her bag and then the lipstick deftly hiding the neat rows of white stitches that lined her mouth like a picket fence around a sink hole.

It was as she finished with the lipstick that she noticed the man in the car one row in front, slightly to her left. He was twisted in his seat staring at her. ‘Not very covert’, thought Bethany. But at least he was cute, if a little scrawny. Had he seen her scars? Not from over there. Her mother had promised her that blanket stitches were the best for the job and that the scars would be minimal. But like in so many other ways her mother had been wrong.

Bethany’s mother had been a seamstress making her living from an internet business of needlepoint artwork and in mending and adjusting clothing and curtains. She was very skilled but there had never been much money in it but it just about paid their bills. Anorexically thin, her mother’s real passion was cookery and having little appetite herself, she had fed her only child as a wren feeds a cuckoo. ‘Little Cuckoo’ was her name for Bethany. And Bethany had thrived.

Then came the forced diets, the gastric bands, the interminable interviews with social services and when Bethany could no longer walk to school, the unofficial home-schooling. The school, where Bethany had been happy, had called the police and interviews followed in which Bethany followed her mother’s scripts to the letter. But even so, in the car on the way home her mother would scream at her, ‘You humiliated me, today’ and punish her with strict diets or even stricter feeding. Even after Bethany had left home to work for an old school friend, paying minimal rent for a bedsit, the food parcels arrived every day, sometimes twice. So she had invited her mother to dinner.

Slowly she had got herself together. Her obesity was checked; for nearly three weeks she had not put on any weight. Today’s visit to McDonalds was a celebration, a last hurrah and again she regretted the no fries. Now she could look forward to meagre rations for at least a couple of years, perhaps more. Unfortunately her mother’s well documented dysfunction would not help, but two years would be enough. Three healthy square meals a day, not a chance of treats or over or under feeding.

Time to go. Bethany pushed open the door slid the seat back to the limit and squeezed herself out using the steering wheel as a brace. The car next to her was too close and she had to side herself along generating static electricity in her joggers that rippled along the side of the shiny Audi like a body dropped into a pond. She opened the boot and lifted out her mother’s desiccated corpse, stick thin and light as small child. She carried her gently and waddled down the other side of the car. Then easily shifting her grip and holding her like a ventriloquist’s dummy, she waved her mother’s hand to the cute policeman in his car.


She heard him before she saw him. The open window on the landing allowed in the early summer birdsong together with the less melodic sounds of her husband’s harsh but controlled breathing and fast, heavy footfall as he sprinted the last twenty metres to the gate. Chest heaving, he came in to their enclosed back garden and bent to rest his hands above his knees. She watched him, stopping herself from knocking on the window. His post run fruit smoothie was ready for him but she looked at him instead, moving back a little form the glass. He sat down on the garden seat and faced the lawn, his back to her. She noticed the slightly thinning patch on his tanned scalp, the way his breathing made his shoulders tense and the slight perspiration on the back of his neck. He liked to keep himself in shape and pushed hard – this was no jog but a race against middle age. A race he’ll lose eventually, he had told her, but ‘not yet’. She smiled at his attitude to life and for the thousandth time thanked her stars for the strength that allowed her to try again. This time she had found a keeper.

A bird had landed at the base of the bird table, searching the flower bed for the seeds that had fallen like manna from above. Lucy made a mental note to replenish the feeders as she watched the sparrow, she thought it was, busily scavenge amongst the Ribes stems and the last of the bluebells so recently gone off. The bird seemed oblivious to John who now sat statue still watching it. His breathing already back to normal, the sweat drying on his neck he was, she noticed, absolutely motionless, intent on watching the bird’s foraging. Manly perhaps but quite an old softly when it came to wildlife. Later he’ll come in and look up the bird in one of his guides, even though he’ll already know what it was, and write in his precious journal he kept in his bedside drawer. He claimed he was not a ‘twitcher’ and hated clubs but he would often go off alone when the birding network reported a rare sighting. Sometimes Lucy would go with him; precious trips when he had taken her away to find some migrant or rare summer visitor.  For Lucy, the birds were irrelevant. It was the romantic hotel getaways she cherished.  On long walks out to the marshes in North Norfolk or along a coastal path in Dorset, with his second best binoculars beating with her heart against her chest, he showed her just as much attention as he gave the plovers and even the bitterns.

So unlike her hedonistic ex whose self-preening with expensive gels, cologne and moisturisers – bought because he was so worth it – drove her to distraction and loneliness. Jay wore bespoke clothes, never exercised and spoke loudly about himself and nothing. His self-obsession wore her down and she came to the realisation that she was just another label for him to show off and, as with all labels, there was a time to display and a time to discard.

The bird flew off and the tension broke like the baited arm on a trap. She saw his shoulders relax. Poor dear, all that concentration for a sparrow; although he had informed her recently that sparrows are nowhere near as common as they used to be. Something about intensive farming and pesticides.            

His sparrow had flown into the field maple that grew against the garden wall. Lucy watched him follow it there and smiled as he gently uncovered its nest like he was exploring a tomb. She read his lips as he counted and then carefully replaced the branch he’d moved aside. Five eggs or young. He looked pleased as he returns to the chair and again stills to catatonic immobility – waiting. The purposeful and deliberate care in his movements reminded her again how lucky she and her young daughter were. She looked again at his strong, content profile, so pleased to glean just a little more knowledge about even such a common bird. ‘There’s one for the book’ she intones in mock nerdiness.

Yet John was no nerd. No, she knew nerds. Lucy had swung pendulum like from the moronic, superficial Jay to the geekish Robin, a ‘scientist’. She had later found out that he was actually a laboratory technician whose worktime manipulation of variables were not the only experimentation he enjoyed. For a time his monotone recitation of remorseless factoids and cold and deliberate investigation of physical pain – giving not receiving, of course – had defined her life. Their relationship had lasted for what seemed an incomprehensibly long time. Her best friends could not understand the type of fear that kept Lucy rooted to the spot unable to move, terrified that she might give her position away; like the avocets John had told her about, that feign severe hurt so that the predator chases them and not their young. Not Tilly. Lucy winced and shuddered at the memories and put her hand out to the window sill that ran the length of the landing. Lucy hadn’t had to feign severe hurt. But that was years ago and this is now and she forces herself to leave the dark realm of old fear and pain, returning to the light of her husband’s patient vigil.

The sparrow had just then moved into John’s long morning shadow and taken a seed from no more than an inch in front of his left trainer. That’s trust.

A child needs a nest with two to tend it and now she had met and married a man who led by self-reliant example and in whom, like the sparrow she could trust. They had created this refuge with its rich rugs, warm curtains and more scatter cushions than they needed. Their home was bright and yet cosy and she felt safer than she’d ever felt.

And yet they had nearly not been married. When she’d first heard the rumours she had immediately believed them, trained to expect the worse for herself and it had taken time to listen to the other side and much longer to believe it. Her friends, protective of their friend who had proved time and again that she could not choose a good man, warned her of what they’ve heard; tales of deceit and of a psychotic coldness.  These venomous rumours sprang from a past wife and told of how he’d lost custody of his children, of restraining orders and dropped charges. In the end she’d confronted him, mere weeks before their marriage, and he’d gently explained. He’d been ruthlessly hen pecked, then bullied and to his shame physically abused by his wife. When he finally reacted, just once, she had told the police and in the ensuing court case he had been found not guilty of assault but a restraining order had been granted and the accusations stuck.  He had been the victim he assured her. She couldn’t imagine what it must have cost him to be blamed for the breakup or for his marriage and for his own children to believe him a danger.

But in time she had believed him and now she would help heal him as he had healed her. She had not just given herself to him, but her child too. This gorgeous house had become a safe haven for all three of them.

He took a real interest in her life – even asked her friends, ‘What are you lot clucking about today?‘ He’d smile at them and he really wanted to know, his curiosity unfeigned and like no man she had ever known, he actually listened to the answers and in fact demanded them.

Peering out through the sash window’s lace, Lucy wondered how he keeps so still? He seemed so relaxed that only by staring could she see that he wasn’t simply dead (too much manly exercise would do that to you). The thought made her stifle a giggle and she moved back from the window. He tensed – almost like he knew she was there and looked up, head turning like a hawk. She waited and didn’t dare breathe. How silly of her; she should have waved, blown him a kiss, beckoned him upstairs; he was clearly recovered from the run and his shirt was clinging close to his broad shoulders and there was plenty of time before she had to leave for work.

Instead she hid.

When Lucy edged again to the window he was again sentinel still looking at the bird,  which was clinging vainly from the feeder.

The bird alighted near his feet. There was an understanding there. Animals sense the goodness in people. She wondered why he wouldn’t allow them to have a pet, Tilly had wanted a dog all her life. But still the wild birds loved him. The sparrow hopped closer to him and busily turned over leaf litter and pecked not inches from his feet. Oblivious.

A breeze bent the mimosa towards her and Lucy shuddered and looked again at her husband who was staring at sparrow. She realised for the bird it was just as if John was not there. There was no trust to give here, no more than to give trust to the flag stones or the fence or the rockery. The man was merely a cold shape, a piece of weathered garden feature.

Lightning fast, John stamped his foot down on the bird. A clawed leg twitched and blood oozed from the side of the vibram sole of his running shoe.  He kept his foot there.

Silence within and without. It was as if the garden had died five months early. The shock created a void inside the house, a void filled only by the sound of the blood coursing through Lucy’s ears and with it the sound of muted bird song.

When the fog cleared she could hear the sound of the hose from the garden. Somehow she had ended up crouched under the window sill, pressed against the wall. She couldn’t look out again but withdrew, lost in the implications of what she had witnessed. But his journal? He loves birds, he sketches them, plots their position on the map in his study, photographs them…

Willing herself to move, Lucy half crawled then stumbled numbly from the landing, the Persian rug coarse sand between her toes, the cold boards sapping her strength. In their bedroom she took the worn journal from his bedside drawer. Perched on the edge of the bed, she leafed through the pages and witnessed the extent of her husband’s successes. So much death. Each tick, a life scrubbed out, dates and times documented in fastidious detail.

She cocks her head to the light, predatory footfall on the stairs.

On the Verge

Michael pulled up outside his childhood home and had just reached the other side of the car before his mother had closed her gate and turned towards him. He pecked her on the proffered cheek and opened the rear door, waited as she fastened her seat belt, closed the door gently and returned to his seat. Perfect start.

‘Where to today, Mum?’

‘A351 about 3 miles this side of Swanage, dear.’

His mother had never learned to drive but a lifetime telling her husband where to go and what to do had given her the patter of a rally car navigator.

He looked at her in his review mirror as they travelled along Scarwood Road, a road that never seemed to change no matter how many people moved out and in. Always the same type of people with the same stuff, same cars, same lives.

‘Eyes on the road, dear.’

She had been looking out of her side window, he’d seen the powder above her lip, the profiled hairs catching the light like old snow on a glacier; and yet she had known he was looking at her.

‘Yes, Mum.’

This had been how every Sunday had been for the last two years, since she had been alone.  Michael had adopted the routine as his way of dealing with missing his father. 8.00 am he’d pick up his mother who would be waiting and she would tell him where to drive. This week not too far; about a 30 minute round trip along roads he had explored on his bike, with his mates as a boy, and roads he driven with dad as he was taught to drive. Familiar, and as he pulled onto the A351, he wondered at how far from his roots he had not come.  He also thought, that he’d got way with the it this time, but no.

‘Are you seeing anyone, Michael? Time is slipping away and if you are to have a family, you at least should be looking for a nice, young woman.’

‘No, Mum, I’m not dating at the moment.’

‘You do like girls don’t you, Michael? I know the world is very odd today but you are alright aren’t you? None of those queer lifestyle choices, I hope?’

Michael ignored the question. Old ground. ‘We’re nearly there, Mum.’

Now as he approached the place she had asked him to find, he wanted to ask like he always wanted to ask, ‘what do you do, mum?’ and ‘why these places?’ But he remembered her response to the first and only time he had asked these questions.

‘Michael, if my simple requests are too much to ask, in future, I’ll call a taxi. A taxi driver would not ask so many questions.’

So instead all he said was, ‘About here, Mum? There’s a layby just ahead on the left.’

‘No, it’s the other side of the road I need, Michael. See the oak standing by itself in the field, quite near the verge?’

Michael saw the oak; an old one, stag headed and solitary with a massive trunk about 6 feet across.

‘Bit tricky, Mum the road bends sharply just before it on that side. I’ll get as close as I can but the verge doesn’t look hard enough to park on’.

‘Just get me as close as you can, dear. I’ve brought my sensible shoes so I’ll be ok walking a few yards on the grass.’

The thought of his mother in anything other than sensible shoes made him smile.

As if in answer to his unspoken thought, his mother went on, ‘It’s not like I go anywhere anymore to own a fancy pair of shoes. Not even when your father was still alive.’

And there is was, like every Sunday, the reference to Dad. The disappointment with his dad.

It took a while for Michael to find a safe place to u turn and drive past the tree after the bend.  A little way past the tree there was a farmer’s track with a gate and enough room to park.

‘Are you sure this is OK, mum? It’s got to be 150 yards to the tree? Can I come with you?’

‘No. You know that Michael – I have to do this alone. I won’t be long.’

And before Michael could get up to help, his mother had slammed the car door and begun to walk back along the verge to the tree. He watched her, exasperated but also impressed that woman in her early seventies could stride so confidently along an uneven verge whilst being buffeted by the backdraft from the string of lorries that seemed to have been waiting for her.

Through the rear mirror he saw her walk a few paces into the field where the oak brooded. Then she just stopped and stood staring at the tree, just like at all the other roadside locations he had taken her in all weathers on Sundays. She stood as still as the objects she stared at.

‘Reach out and touch it… now’, Michael whispered aloud.

And as he said the words his mother reached out a hand and stroked the bark of the tree and then in a move new to Michael, she reached up and followed the irregular line of the two lowest branches with her right hand, as if conducting an invisible orchestra.

What would the people driving by be thinking about this strange old lady dressed like she walked out of the 50s, in that tweed suit and wearing that oversized moon broach, waving her arms about at the side of the road? He cringed and sank a little deeper into his chair. Adjusting the mirror, Michael could tell she was doing the chant thing. Always the chant thing: nodding her head a she stroked the tree.  He was too far away to read her lips but he was closer last week and he had seen some of the words she mouthed: ‘Bring them here’, seemed to be the phrase repeated most.

Of course stroking trees was a little odd but lots of people like hugging them. But it was the other things she stroked, the telegraph poles, the church walls and the post boxes that was truly odd. Early onset Alzheimer’s? But in all other ways she was sharp as knife.

‘Well, that didn’t take me long now did it?’

‘No, Mum. You were very quick.’ Michael winced, he hadn’t controlled his tone.

‘You don’t approve of our little drives, do you Michael?’

‘It’s not for me to approve or disapprove, Mum.’

‘Em. And yet you do. If you’d prefer it, I can take a taxi in future?’

‘No, Mum. I love our drives; It’s just that don’t understand what you do. It seems a little bizarre, that’s all.’ He knew that he’d crossed one of her lines the moment he’d said it. No response but the car seemed to get colder.

He tried to break the tension. ‘Did you mention on the phone that you need to buy some sausages on the way back?’

Silence and then, ‘Yes, my butchers let me down again. Seems I can’t trust anyone anymore. But I can do very well without them.’

The rest of the journey home took place in silence and it would be over two weeks before she phoned him again.

Michael woke up gripping the duvet, soaked from the sweat of his night terrors; same terror most nights. His dad’s cadaverous mass lying still with only the susurration of his shallow breathing to hint at life. Then his eyes open, empty sockets but staring nevertheless accusingly at Michael. And then the words, always the same, always spat with an energy that belied the skeletal frame, ‘You left me like this. You left me with her.’

‘Just a dream.’

Michael swung his feet out of bed and repeated his mantra, ‘Just a dream.’

His father had always had a final plan. That if he got seriously ill, he meant terminally ill, he would, before it was too late, ‘do something about it’. He’d loved hill walking and had told Michael in a light tone that he’d found the perfect place. He’d made Michael promise that he’d drive him up to Glen Affric in the Highlands of Scotland where he’d walk away alone until he could walk no-more. And there die. He’d even left a large sum in his will for the Scottish Mountain Rescue who would be called to search for him and retrieve the body.

That was the plan and he had only told his son, his only child; told him gripping his arm, with a warning: ‘Don’t tell your mother’.

In the end when it was clear his father’s illness was not going into remission like it did the first time, his father had told him it was time. He’d even packed a picnic for the drive like he had when Michael was a child. Michael had refused to drive his father to Scotland.

Later that night, when they’d returned from the police station, his mother had told him that his father, devastated by Michael’s betrayal had taken the car and it was during his own attempt to drive to Scotland that he had crashed and had died watching the paramedics try to revive the little girl his car had pinned to a tree.

By the next Sunday she had still not called and his mother’s silence was beginning to feel like a punishment. His sleep was wracked by even more intense dreams and the sounds of sirens infected his nightmares; the ones outside – so many – merging in his nightmares with the wails that accompanied his father to hospital so many times in the months before he died. The next morning the local news had reported another road death only half a mile from Michael’s house. A local shopkeeper, apparently.

All the next week his mother hadn’t picked up when he called, nor had she replied to his messages. He would have walked the five minutes to his mother’s house but was unsure of his welcome and so it was with obvious relief in his voice that Michael answered when his mother rang him the next Saturday. He hadn’t decided how he felt on finally hearing her clipped instructions before his own voice confirmed that he would pick up his mother the next day ‘at 8am sharp’ to take her to another location.

The morning was cold and the rain heavy sky seemed to press the car into the wet road as he drove again along the damp, grey and featureless of Scarwood Road.

‘Where to today, Mum?’

‘Just head for the centre of town, please.’

Well, she was being frosty but he’d known her frostier.  Perhaps she’s forgiven him.

Michael noticed the butchers was closed with a large wreath on the door and realised that the dead shopkeeper from the news was known to them. He started to tell his mum but as he glanced in the rear view, he saw her looking at the shop door as they passed and her wide smile drained all the words from his mouth; he hadn’t realised that she hadn’t liked him. Paul was his name and he had been their family’s go to butcher for as long as Michael could remember.

‘Here will do, Michael.’

‘It’s a taxi rank, Mum. There are lots of people there.’ Michael could only imagine how her strange actions and chant would go down here. ‘I’ll have to drop you and go round. Is that all right?’

‘If that’s what you have to do, that’s what you have to do.’

She got out and Michael pulled away before even one of the taxicab drivers had formulated a territorial expletive. From experience Michael knew how long he had and he decided to pick up a local paper while he waited. Pulling into the OneStop carpark at the end of the high street, he saw that the news boards were full of the butcher’s funeral which was taking place on Thursday of the next week. He sat back in the car and read about the community’s grief and enough of the detail to realise how little he had known about this pillar of the community. Paul Hoskins had been raising money for the local children’s hospice. His long distance running and had raised over £20,000 at the time of his death.

Michael wanted to tell his mother about him – perhaps so that she might appreciate him more and perhaps so that she might rub out that smile from Michael’s memory and replace it with some sign respectful grief. However, when he had finally negotiated the morning traffic back to the taxi rank, the scene that greeted him wiped all conversation from his mind.

His mother was standing bolt upright surrounded by taxi drivers and passersby, like Miss Marple amongst all the suspects she had ever accused of murder. Everyone seemed to be shouting at her. Before he realised what he was doing, Michael was out of the car, his arm around her, guiding his mother to safety. As they drove away, narrowly missing one of the taxi drivers who had run at the car as it left, Michael asked, ‘What happened mum? Are you alright? What did you do?’

‘It’s telling that you think it was my fault.’

‘Mum, everyone was shouting at you! What happened?’

‘A misunderstanding. That’s all. Take me home, Michael.’

And that was that. She would not say another word or even acknowledge his questions all the way back.

The sirens were back in his head that night. His father’s accusing eyes held him like a vice and in ripping himself away from their glare he found himself thrown half out of bed, fevered and with no prospect of further sleep. It was 3 0’clock in the morning. Michael drove the empty streets of the town and turned into the high street, passing the taxi rank. Too late for punters, he saw that there were flowers around the base of the post which held the sign for taxi rank and wondered what could have happened there. Still distracted and scared that inaction would invite in his father’s baleful presence, he drove on. Soon he found himself back on the A351 heading towards Swanage where he had taken his mother three weeks ago. As he came round the bend his full beams reflected on something glittery where he knew the old oak stood back from the road.

Pulling over in the same place, Michael retraced his mother’s steps by torchlight and stood before the tree. A jagged scar had torn away a swath of bark half way up the trunk and ripped two of the lower branches like dolls limbs from their sockets. The verge had been chewed up and there were pieces of glass and plastic strewn around the base of the tree. Someone had tied a bright red and glittery ribbon around the tree and a cheap clip frame had been slipped under it.

The face of a young man – a little younger than Michael smiled out at him. Had mum known that someone had died here when she came to chant and touch? Had this been her silent farewell? Perhaps she knew him? But what of all the other strange roadside vigils he had taken her to?

When she had been here, Michael didn’t remember the damage to the tree. But he had been over a hundred yards away. He was however certain that there had been no ribbon. He noticed another frame tucked into the wide ribbon; this one small, wooden with a glass pane. Stepping closer he shone his torch at the beautiful hand-written script, ‘My beloved, Cameron, we had so little time together but you filled my days with joy. I will always love you.  John xxx’.

Above this simple declaration of love were the dates: Cameron Stainforth May 12th 1993 – September 14th 2020.

Michael froze. Was this all just a coincidence? That he and his mother had visited a tree before a fatal accident at exactly the same tree? He could barely breathe. He and his mother had visited the tree two days before Cameron had died.

How could she have known that an accident would happen here? Unless this Cameron had the accident earlier, say Saturday, and didn’t die until later? Then his mum found out about it and came to wish him well where he was injured. But the tree had looked whole on that Sunday. The tree’s damage was severe so wouldn’t he have seen it? And who was Cameron? His mum didn’t know anyone of her own age far less a man in his twenties. And Cameron was obviously gay and if Michael was honest, he knew that his mum was ‘conservative’ about such things.

Too many questions rang around Michaels’ head as he drove home, so many that sleep would have been impossible so he drove on towards town.

Michael arrived back at the taxi rank. It was still early but there were already three taxis waiting for the commuters who would soon emerge from the underpass that led from the town’s station.  The third in line he recognised as the woman who he had almost hit as she tried to get at his mother as they’d driven away.  

Michael pulled up on the other side of the road and walked to the taxi. Her window was open. ‘Excuse me.’

‘Start that end, mate’, she said without looking up from her phone.

‘I don’t need a taxi I just need to ask you something.’

She looked up and recognition spread across her face like rash. ‘You were with that old bitch from yesterday!’

Michael winced but carried on, ‘Yeah, my mother. What did she do?’

‘What she did was unforgiveable. Evil old witch, with John only just gone.’

‘Tell me, what did she do? She wouldn’t tell me anything.’

‘She told us that John had taken her on a job last Sunday and that he’d been rude. Well he’d already told me and a couple of the other drivers what really happened. John was never rude, even when he should be. She got him to take her out to a really dodgy stretch of road where the camber is treacherous and then told him off for not waiting on a blind corner. John wouldn’t wait thee but he was concerned about her walking about on that road by herself so he parked safe and walked back. She was chanting at milestone – on her knees stroking the bloody thing! Is your mother ok? I mean ok in her head?’ She didn’t wait for a reply.  ‘John told us she screamed at him, awful language, when she saw him watching her and despite this John still waited for her and drove her home – proper gent he was.’

‘Was? And why were you all screaming at her?’

‘John died on Saturday. She laughed when we told her. Laughed out loud and I think she already knew because she didn’t look surprised, just happy. We’d only just heard he’d been taken off life support and she laughed.’

Michael hardly dared to ask but he had to know, ‘When was John’s accident?’

‘Thursday night. They think he hit something on the road and then lost control and ended up in that ditch. He was such a safe, skilful driver. Just goes to show…’

‘Oh, my god, I’m so sorry.’ Michael should have been driving his mother that Sunday not John. Was it his fault, the taxi driver had died?

Michael drove back the long way, through the mist that hung in tattered curtains across the minor road that meandered south of the town, through the remnants of the ancient woods that had grown there since the ice age. The giant trees reached across the road and under the arch of their entwined fingers, he felt he was driving into a tunnel from which little light escaped. He imagined the trees festooned in ribbons with decaying cuddly toys scattered in holocaust legions, piled between the roots under cellophane shrouds. A sharp bend showed palely 100 yards ahead as the headlights picked out the white of a bracket fungus feeding off a dying silver birch and next to it an oak tree, ancient and unmoveable. So easy to just to not turn the wheel. Just to keep going straight. To do nothing.

When Michael got back home he was still shaky. He sat facing the wall on which the photograph of his father hung and where the shadows cast out by the rising sun passed over it like veils lifting. It all made sense now. He tried to remember how many trips there had been. How many deaths – predicted or arranged? How did she know them and how did she get them there? How did she choose them?  Who else had died on the road, died alone in the shadow of a wall or tree?

His father.

He thought back to that night after they had identified his body. The police had been cold to his mother. He remembered the little girl’s parents’ grief stricken voices in the next room. When he and his mother had finally got home he had told her of his father’s suicide plan. And in the voice she had used with him ever since, she tonelessly and oh so quietly told him that his father’s and the little girl’s death were Michael’s fault. And so she had made him her like a penance, teaching him the error of what? Keeping his father’s plan a secret from his mother?

Michael jumped when the phone rang. He knew who it would be.


‘Michael, I need you to drive me to…’

‘Who is it this time, Mum?’

An extended pause. More than enough space for mutual recognition.

‘‘Where’ not ‘who’, Michael. And it’s not far. And I think we’ll go today.’

‘It’s not Sunday.’

‘This one doesn’t have to be.’

‘It’s nearly 8 O’clock. I’ll come over now.’ He hung up.

Two for Joy

The wind swept over the rise and cannoned down the shallow slopes of the valley, stalking the road’s sinuous waist. Strut sat on the fence-post opposite his mate watching the rise of the hill and as he turned his head from the wind’s fury, his back feathers ruffled and he hunched against the cold. He watched and waited, listening, head tilted; guarding. Preen dipped and tore at the rat’s fresh carcass, pulling at the worm-like still warm entrails.

The first Preen knew of the car’s approach was Strut’s harsh warning screech as he leapt from his perch towards her. She looked up and gave one more tug at a stubborn morsel and as he repeated his warning she swept up into the air and they landed and  turned together to watch the rise. Expectant. The wind’s dull boom had chastened at the car’s approach and now they could hear the hard drone of the provider and Preen shook her head in frustration. Not this one; not this time. More than he, Preen could recognise the distinct sound of her particular love. Her angel.

She considered her mate. So protective, so confident and yet so vulnerable. How will he respond to her news?

She had lost interest in him by the time the car had come into sight, appearing phantom like through the early mist; a blood red avenger threatening to obliterate their breakfast, grind it into the black, granite hard surface of the road.

Strut was back at the kill first; he hadn’t eaten yet. Preen took her place on the post, vigilant as Strut searched the verge for what was left of the meal. Again she gazed longingly at the rise. It must be time. Soon it must be time.

Saphy walked through the dappled morning sunlight as it shone through the leaded Victorian glazing of her entrance porch. The light pierced the sheer fabric of her Monsoon skirt and then spilled spent onto the red, black and white tiled floor. As she closed the door behind her she reflected on the last few months: what a change in her life! One life ends and another begins and only she remained. Improved. The cul-de-sac echoed to the sharp click of the deadlock and the rooks nesting in the limes shuffled crabbily as she walked to the car whose shrill greeting ‘peep peep’ stirred more memories.

This had been his car, well, the one he had wanted. She smiled as she adjusted the seat belt under the growing joy of her womb and around the pleasing swell of her breasts. She recalled his face when she had explained that with the baby coming they couldn’t afford such a toy. He just had to be content to drive past its gleaming metalwork in the showroom each day to work. It’s sapphire pearlescence, ‘cosmic blue’ according to the handbook, reminded her of another blue: the blue of a Greek sky two years ago when the brown of his skin had merged with the ivory of her own and the promise of his ‘Mr Rightness’ had made her giddy. Now he was gone. Good riddance! And it was with a visceral glee that she had bought the car. His car.

Saphy adjusted the mirror so that she could look at her face. She removed her CK glasses and smiled at her reflection. Those eyes! Probably her best feature. The whole iris was visible, almost turquoise so that strangers assumed that she wore fashion lenses; perfect eye lashes, her beautician made sure her eye-brows were flawlessly arched. She was, after all, named for her eyes – her father had prayed that his newborn’s eyes would not dim to grey or taint to green. His prayers answered, Sapphire Newland grew up learning how to use her best features – the power of a sideways glance, a coy glimpse, the wide-eyed mock innocence – all weapons in the arsenal of one born with such beautiful eyes. After the baby was born and her gym membership had repaid itself, there would be other men in her life – under her terms of course.

Preen watched the rise impatiently and then, too tense to just sit and watch, joined her mate. Surprised, Strut stepped to the side and allowed her pride of place. The red car had in one go taken and delivered: the rat had gone but a leveret had taken its place and now lay astride the white line –  a final embrace as if it was desperate to hang on to something, anything. Desperate not to die. They fed together in silence. Dipping and rising in time and Preen noticed the echo of their courtship display and was filled with optimism. Soon her nest would be ready, just a few more bill-fulls of fur – this young hare might be all she needed – and of course, a few more bright, blue precious jewels to proclaim their union.

Paul would surprise Saphy with weekends away at country hotels and with beautifully wrapped gifts of antique jewellery, not for display amongst her flock of competitive friends but adequate for those country escapes. Saphy would find them beneath her pillow in warm little boxes and velvet bags – tokens of what she took to be his sincere love.  Paul had had his good points; so Saphy’s sister had also thought. Bitch had always wanted what Saphy had.

Her phone vibrated on the cream calfskin seat beside her: she was a little was late.

Saphy readjusted the mirror, hid her eyes behind her glasses tinting in the growing light of dawn, started the car and left the cul-de-sac behind. This evening when she returned the kitchen would have been done: granite surfaces, red tiled floor and duck egg blue splash tiles. The baby’s room was nearly finished too. What a room! She knew it was right the moment her mother had hated it. She had poured all her training and experience as an interior designer into the nursery and it had evolved into a tropical seascape of flying fish, surfacing mermaids and pelican mobiles. Her mother saw it as frivolous, her cold, dark eyes scanning the walls just as she scanned the way Saphy dressed, her make-up and her choice of men. Her mother had even dismissed her unborn grandson as inconvenient ‘just like his father and mother’ when Saphy had told her the expected birth date – it had clashed with a friend’s party. Just once Saphy would have liked a little warmth, a little comfort from her mother. She determined to be everything to her son that her own mother hadn’t been to her. And it started with this beautiful room.  A nest to welcome her child to the warmth outside the womb and to a world full of wonder and joy. And if he never knew his father, so much the better.

She left the dormitory village and began the long, serpentine ascent to the top of the ridge. She let the car have its way, in sport mode, hugging the camber, taking the racing line through the empty curves. Life was good; she glowed with maternal power.

Preen and Strut heard their angel at the same time and recognised her sound instantly. Preen looked at him and knew the game had begun. So Preen stayed despite her yearning to rise up and be first to see the provider. She feigned interest in the meal – at least the tender, young gut was pleasantly warm. Strut must never find out of course that his game of chicken was rigged to boost that frail male ego. And then the car appeared over the brow of the hill like another sunrise. One more second and she’ll jump to the safety of the verge and perhaps even give a frightened little squeak for effect, allowing him to face the threat for a second longer and to win his victory. To prove his worth.

As Saphy drove over the rise she had already started to look for the birds. ‘Her birds’ as she called them. Always two never one or three. Soon she’ll be two again and be just as independent and perfectly adapted as these wonderful birds. And there they were. Feeding. Soon with perfect timing they would step aside, hopping nonchalantly to let her pass. And when she had passed she would see them in the mirror just as coolly step back to the road kill – oblivious of her passing. Closer, any time now they would jump away onto the verge. They were in the middle of the road so they could just step to the other side. But still they stayed. They seemed intent on each other; one a little further away than the other. Closer still, Saphy clutched the wheel harder, ‘Move you silly birds!’

Strut looked anxious and Preen knew she should have gone by now. What was she doing? The car, fast, beautiful and deadly was nearly upon them. Her mate screeched harsh and loud: warning her, pleading with her to move. She didn’t react. Couldn’t. Strut leapt just in time, the force of the car’s approach spinning him in the air until he fell to the verge still screeching his fear, his despair. Preen was transfixed by the glittering blue and chrome and could not move. She felt the heat of her angel’s breath and vaguely noted that she would die.

Saphy saw the nearest bird fly to side, the male probably, but the other stayed and seemed to stare straight at her; not at the car but at her. Its black eyes seemed to transfix her; to see through her carefully groomed exterior and to truly see her.  Her knuckles white, death bleached at the wheel, she screamed, ‘Move!’

Preen wondered if her mate would harvest her. She hoped so. It appealled to the romantic in her. The blast from her angel’s breath hit her and she unfurled to embrace her beautiful death. Then too late she remembered that it was not just her death. A scream ripped through the morning.

She found herself near the verge, plucked from the road by the car’s passing as it veered around her. Strut was at her side. She felt like road kill but responded to the gentle touch of his bill. He looked angry and yet there was something else there too. Relief? Respect? Preen would later have time to consider these happy thoughts but now the morning’s pattern was being shattered by the rending of metal and an explosion of glass as the car sacrificed itself to the road’s uncompromising hardness. 

Saphy’s despairing tug on the wheel was enough to send the car into a side-ways spin and then, still travelling fast, it hit the mile stone and turned over and over again.

The morning seemed to pause. All sound hushed, all movement ceased and even the trees froze and stared down the wind that stepped aside to give the tableau vivant a moment’s respect.

She hung suspended from her seatbelt conscious enough to feel a cold, spreading numbness in her legs. A slow, steady tick of cooling metal was the only sound but then Saphy became aware of a less regular scratch like sound to her right but was unable to turn her head.

Preen approached the wreckage of the car in shocked awe. What was once so beautiful, predatory, glorious was now bleeding its dark oily life’s blood onto the road. Shards of bright glass kicked and skidded from under her feet as she hopped tentatively closer. Strange alien smells and sounds made her wary but her eyes were transfixed by the face  – inverted but its eyes still radiated perfection.

They seemed to be glad to see her.

Saphy struggled to reach the seat belt catch. The tightness in her chest was suffocating and her eyes were wet with tears. The strange scratching came closer and from amongst the twisted confusion there was her bird. Alive. Tears of joy merged with those of pain and fell amongst the mirrored glass, crystals that reflected the flames that had begun to leap around the shattered engine compartment. She studied the bird as she skipped ever closer towards her. Almost green rather than black – a deep rippling green which reflected the flames.

Preen was aware of the flames and of Strut’s growing impatience, his harsh bark-like calls intense, insistent. But Preen was as a moth drawn to a flame and she stepped towards Saphy’s tear streaked face.

There was a deadness in Saphy’s arms – they seemed weighed down, pulled over her head, touching but not resting on the car’s headlining. It seemed like too much effort just to reach down to her waist for the seatbelt release. But her bird was fine and so close she could see the individual feathers at the base of her bill and the little tuft of what looked like rabbit fur still lodged to one side of the beak. Her last meal. The perfect predator. She seemed to be staring directly at Saphy. It was almost as if the bird cared and was coming to check on her.

‘It’s all right. I’ll be all right. If I could just reach.’ She tried to move her arms again.

The movement startled the bird and it jumped back a little.

‘No. It’s all right. Don’t go. Please don’t leave me.’

Her breath was coming in gasps and her eyes swam with tears of pain and useless rage. The life inside her stirred against the seat-belt’s pressure and sudden panic for her unborn child made her strong again. She reached down to the left of her seat and her hand found the smooth, cold button. She willed with all her maternal might that she could pull herself free from the wreckage. She could hear sirens.  They might save her son, if only she could reach.

She fell onto her right side screaming at the pain in her back and knew she couldn’t move again. The bird jumped back but only a few steps.

Preen stared at Saphy’s beautiful eyes which seemed to grow in both size and intensity as she stared back and felt love swell inside her. She would complete her nest. As always, out of death and sacrifice, life would spring. She stepped closer despite the danger from the flames and the wailing sirens as a stream of cars came over the rise. Preen noticed that the rain swept slopes above the road were stained azure by flashing lights and the trees were casting sudden, brief shadows in cold, cold blue. Good omens for her, for her mate and for her brood. She stepped closer.

The bird and woman were surrounded by the flames that were reflected in the shattered glass and pools of oil and radiator fluid. Eye to eye they regarded each-other.

‘Hello bird’, croaked Saphy and almost smiled. They said magpies were black and white and yet she could see iridescent greens and even blues in her bird’s plumage. She was beautiful. The only real black was in her eye; a dark scrying glass of coldness. The bird stepped closer still. For the first time since the crash, Saphy felt fear.

Preen struck. Stabbing with practised precision with her perfectly adapted bill.

Preen and her mate flew off across the fields to their nest deep inside the copse. Triumphant sirens called in the valley and the morning’s light was suffused with blue. Clutched tightly in her talons her trophies glistened in the dawn’s new light. She regarded her mate flying respectfully to her side and slightly behind. A handsome bird and he’ll take care of her. Now home to finish the nest and then to another harvesting for after all, soon there will be new mouths to feed.

Pond Life

My world is of the dark and of the cold. It is alien to you and yet you are drawn to me and my world. I am not drawn to yours.

My world is denser than yours and sound travels differently; it moves faster but more quietly. We live in hollow whispers but whispers that follow us anywhere and everywhere. We hear your world. It seldom whispers. One voice dominates: its deep resonance shakes our world and we have known its taunts and scolds and its never idle threats can crack the ice on our February skin.

I wish the dark of my world was the darkness of space, that infinite vacuum in which sound cannot exist. Then I would not hear her scream nor my fragile tympanum vibrate to a fear we cannot comprehend. 

The scream jogs our collective memory and we replay those times when her world, your world and ours lapped each other’s shore…

A season past, another scream disturbed our peace. I woke to the sound that broke our stillness: high pitched, its icy resonance sent ripples adrift which curled the sodden tendrils of my weeds. I’d heard the sound before – when dragon fly larvae bit tender lace fly legs that dabbled foolishly in the shallows, the haunts for stalkers and predators. This sound was of that ilk – a terror in the surprise attack, trailing off to the resigned, despairing whimper of one who knows there’s no escape.

In my world I am streamlined yet you laugh at my attempts to travel through yours with your gravity snatching at my webbed feet. You ridicule my awkward attempts to walk upon your earth. I ask, where are you perfectly adapted? Where do you swim with graceful ease?  It seems you flounder wherever you are and drown on dry land as easily as you drown in water.

A child’s ball, a spinning globe of primary colour, splashed above and our dark world shook, reverberating like the jelly spawn we lace each spring for our silent, busy young; moulded, packaged, protected through their journey into life. I watched it spin and heard the child cry and felt the unsteady fall of toddler’s feet come gingerly to the brink of our dark, cold world. The spinning ball beckoned its determined owner, whose shape eclipsed the sun and in whose stead we basked,  reached out, grunting with frustrated stretching, pudgy fingers touching …just. And the ball spun away. Yet still he leant, his fair framed head level with my submerged perch, his face just inches from the wet. And in that face we could see hers.

Inevitable. He toppled and yelped with sudden fear. We would have supported his soft frame had we had the combined mass. Held him up, just for her. We breed in legions but she puts all her love and future into his single fragile body. We would have kept him dry and safe but he fell defenceless towards our depths.

She was there.  And caught her son. He never touched the wet and soon was giggling, kicking whisked away and never knew how close he came to us and death. I watched her face, still white but pretending that she had not almost died with fear. She later came back for the ball and its technicolour glory gone, we returned to our verdigris twilight and forgot the child but not the colour he left gently burnt on our collective retina; our cold green eye on your world.

Our pool looks up at the night, the stars enclose our world whilst we, the habitually torpid, sleep deeply and wake slowly and wait for the sun. By day, ours is a hunting ground and not one of us is safe. I only fear the great grey bird whose military stealth stalks all my dreams.  The child’s mother knew my fear and planted a false cat upon our bank. We are a community that dares not turn our backs on each other’s hunger but hunger we understand and there is no malice in need. At night we can usually sleep but with one eye open.

Nights in your well-fed world are another matter. High drama erupts above us and through the glassy surface the lights show what trauma thunders through your homes at night. Deep threats of an anger we don’t feel, her small voice pleading, always pleading and often too the higher pitched cries of her young son who understands no more than we why his repose was disturbed, why his little world had been blasted apart. Why his mother cries. Our pond faces the back of the house where there’s no need to shade the dark events hidden from the street. We get the private grief not public smiles and we saw her stalked from room to room. She hid beneath a window sill but he soon found her refuge and we descended to depths where sight and sound were cushioned.

I returned to the bright gold band, no tarnish there, and wondered what it meant. She dropped it into our depths one evening as the sun dipped behind the wall, and she and we watched together its bright spiral fade into our cold void as our stagnant waters were diluted with her salt tears. She didn’t try to retrieve it. Instead it nestled into our silt. We kept it uncovered in case she ever came for it, if only to see her pale hand brush our weeds and feel her warmth send ripples throughout our frigid realm. It lies there still.

Flags wave across our horizon; it must be Sunday. And she who sits beside our bank on summer evenings and stares into our depths, makes her gentle progress and ties upon a line a myriad of bunting; their colours follow her, mocking the movements of our drab weeds. As the capricious wind takes our fronds and emerald billows strum our little world, so too does it pull and stretch the  infinite array of shape and colour that snaps and dances for our wonder. Later she returns and takes in her rainbow foliage. Sundays were good.   

She brought a toad to us, saved from certain rest and bug rich earth and therefore grumpy even for a toad. Her intention was clear: she saw amphibian need so brought our reluctant guest and shuffled her gently into our depths. ‘There you go. Be free. Be safe, mother toad.’ The toad’s wet affront provoked our dark humour which rebounded from her warty hide. She turned her thick skinned indifference to our disrespect as she clambered back to her world to seek the shelter of old wood or pot.   She may remember us and come back to spawn her bead-like strings of life. I doubt it. I revelled in her ugly presence but too soon she fled our wet for the merely damp and how my relative beauty faded!  I slept and dreamed of lonely princesses.

On summer days we congregate just below the surface, a menagerie of the faithful to hear her tell her tales. Water boatmen skit across the surface leaving con trails in our sky and we rise towards them, gliding: her silent, invisible audience. On the eddies of her voice we drift, beguiled and dream of heroes, witches, labyrinths and happy ever afters she will never know.

And though her words are strange, we join the quest and allow ourselves to be spied by her little son who sits against her knee and stares into our pool. He listens rapt and watches us and sees the fantasy spun by his mother played out in our assigned roles. The great diving beetle is now a bear glowering from the forest glades and a raft spider, a visitor from the fens who stayed, becomes the witch transformed by hate. In his young mind we take our cues and our mime inspires unrestrained delight. His laughter urged us on to greater feats of derring-do: chasing dragonfly nymphs, who enjoy their role too much, typecast and too eager to forget the play and prey on those in pursuit. I, a handsome, speckled steed, of course, race through forests of elodea with my water flea hounds until we are recalled, at last, by a wistful longing that invades her voice as she describes a princess wronged, now saved and carried safely to a different place. The adventure is over for another night.

We saw less of her as summer pollen gave way to fallen leaves that clogged our sky and settling began their acidification of our depths. She appears briefly, seems wary, hurriedly pulling at the worst of the leaves from our autumn dankness. Soon she hurries in and though we should be able to breathe more easy, we cannot. There must be death before life can begin and all that died above and around us this year is absorbed to feed next Spring’s water lily, yellow flag and water violet.

Life only follows death in our universe.

I saw a face. Unfamiliar porous skin stretched rictus thin across strange teeth. We regarded each other, eye to eye. She, pleading, saw me. I recognised her then, disguised behind a white mask of moon-like luminance. Strange, blue eyes bored into my bulbous orbs. But my webbed fingers would not have broken that angry, white knuckled grip that forced her scared, white face into my world. And so she thrashed and all who lived beneath were buffeted by one who died above. The torment ended, she saw no more and her accusing eyes lost focus as she was dragged from our cold world which soon returned to peace.

Tonight an unnatural calm lies heavy on us and we are more aware than usual that nothing separates us from all the dark weight of the night sky.

I swim reluctantly upwards and my head breaks the unnatural peace. It’s Sunday and the sun’s vestige glimmers dully in the west. There is no colour except for her bunting uncollected on the line and the garden deafens me with its silence. Holding my breath, I wait. Our collective eye, like that shared by ancient seers, stares out but we cannot see her future. No evening story from the bank or window; no-more her soft, rich voice to tell of forests and castles and of frogs who would be princes. 

The water stirs around me. They have assembled. They rise together to discover the end of her story, the story we did not choose to join. We wait in the hope that something remains of her, of the love for life, the warmth and optimism.  All that she bequeathed to the heart of that little boy.  We wait. And then, as the last of the sun dies behind the wall and blue replaces the stale orange and pinks in the sky, they come. Strangers dressed darkly race past our hiding place. More lights, shouts then hushed conversation. Then more silence.  The boy is there. Safe. Blanketed, cocooned; holding hands with those that seem hardened to be kind. He’s led form our garden and our lives. Cold blue lights invade our depths like a choking algal bloom.

What purpose did her death fulfil? Her solitary offspring, so long to wean, is unfinished, alone and out of her sun. We were the silent witnesses to her warmth and love and her cold death. No one asked us why. We had no reasons to give.

Her band of gold remains with us and we’ll keep it for her.

Burnt Out

That morning’s stubborn frost – the first of the year – groaned under his feet as he slogged his way up to the bonfire. A mist hung over the field. It seemed that the day hadn’t really started and yet it was already on the wane. His sense of distance was playing up; surely it was taking far too long? Too long to get to the huge pile of planks, branches and discarded furniture – a year’s worth of a village’s accumulated waste. Still, he told himself, it will be worth the effort, so he leaned into the slope pulling on the cord to drag his sled up its last hill. And there it was, looming out of the wet, grey membrane like a lost pyramid. ‘Shit! Someone’s been busy’ he thought. He wondered how the hell he was going to get the old sled to the top of what must be a fifteen foot pile of unstable debris.

What had his Dad called this – his ‘voluntary community service’? He’d explained what he wanted to do: to make a bonfire for the village fireworks night. He knew his dad was surprised, surprised by his feckless son’s enthusiasm and hard work.

Truth be told, Mike had never done the washing up, never offered to wash the car and keeping his room tidy was a joke. As for cleaning up after himself, putting the toilet seat down or washing out the bath after him – never. But this was different. This wasn’t something his parents had told him to do so that made it Ok, even if they would have approved, in their own way. Funny how his parents could have been what they were and yet still have a love for village life.

He looked up at the potential inferno and he grinned. A happily abandoned fly tipping mentality had infected the village, seems they all had something to burn, something to forget. He was part of the village now. In the last two days he’d been recognised and  congratulated by those nameless faces you sort of know but don’t in a small village. They knew about his efforts and rewarded him with the respect due to a young but worth-while member of the village. Diluted respect but respect nonetheless.

  ‘Hey, Mike that’s quite a pile you’ve got there!’

‘Yes, but I’ve got some cream!’ And they’d laughed at his lame joke. Looked at him, seen him as if for the first time.

He remembered his parents’ house parties when it seemed the entire village descended on their semi-detached cottage and then descended again deeper, mysteriously into their cellar. And as he let each guest in the front door, he remembered the scorn on their faces. Probably the same faces that now looked him in the eye as he passed them in the village,  who smiled, winked and tilted their heads almost conspiratorially as they went by. Pity he thought: that’s all it would have taken but now it was too late. Far too late. If only he could have trusted any of these erstwhile friends so he could tell them the truth about what was hidden behind his family’s perfect front.

Millie had been the last straw. The husky/border cross had been the companion of his youth and though her dotage had ended their exploration of the local countryside, their relationship had been the one honest constant in his life. One Saturday in early autumn, after a sleepless night, he’d stumbled down to breakfast where his mum had told him that Millie had been taken ill in the night and had had to be put down at the vets. Later that day he’d cycled to the vets to see her and to say goodbye. He had returned with nothing but the confirmation that his only friend had not been cut down with canine leukaemia, in fact she had not even been admitted at the vets. His parents had clearly been angry at being caught in their lie. As he watched his mum’s practiced regret flit briefly across her face, he remembered what he had thought was a dream the previous night. The familiar chants, that often invaded his dreams, were this time a bass counterpoint to a drawn out, whining that had curled up from the bowels of the house.  This dream had ended in a visceral and euphoric shout at which the whining abruptly stopped.

No dream, then. Mike’s world turned.

He tipped the load, the memory of that sudden realisation giving him the strength to throw the frame from a shattered bed high onto the pyre and heft the sled so it stood balanced on its only whole runner against the staved-in side of an old wardrobe. The wardrobe’s veneer was peeling and its cheap plywood was exposed for all the world to see. He thought of the secrets that Victorian relic might have stored and of the generations who’d polished the wardrobe’s flanks. What had they hidden in its naphthalene smelling insides? The terrible rows, the false accusations, pints of spat obscenities and of course, the hours of cold indifference.  All that history. All those sins. All to be burned away like old rags.

He imagined himself sitting atop the pile looking out over the village. He’d miss the places where he’d taken his first girlfriend, guiltily hiding from the meagre street lights at the centre of the village but reluctant to leave the safety of their glimmer, wary of the dark recesses of the lanes and bridleways. He remembered how he’d respected her shy pleas for restraint and walked her safely home. In the failing light he would still be able to make out the rough track, a scar amongst the trees, where he’d come off his bike, got back up, bloodied, his tear streaked face determined to make the jump this time. From the pyre’s top he would see the recycling bins in the pub car-park where he’d stood up to the bullies who tormented the vicar’s autistic daughter as she returned from church on Sundays.

 If only it had all happened that way – the way he liked to remember it; the way he’d like to be remembered.

An old door, a little way inside the pile, caught his eye: knots weeping through the broken layers of lead paint, the Suffolk latch still attached, vainly reaching for the catch: old habits, it still leant almost straight barring access to the pyre’s heart . And in its hard flat surface, he saw the closed door to his parent’s room, the barred door to the cellar where he was never allowed and all the other doors  slamming in his house. He saw too his friends’ front doors deaf to his knocking and the world’s opportunities shutting in his face. When he tried to tell his mum of his fears or led his dad to the topics he needed help with – nothing. They didn’t, wouldn’t get it. A parent’s scorn was a terrible thing: their disappointment in him dripped from their stares like tears and it burnt him like acid. Surely, that’s child abuse?

And in those cold boards he saw again the locked door to the medicine cabinet opening to the edge of his knife.

At least his parents were together.  He stared deep inside the pyre’s heart, no not a pyre, nor even a pyramid, more like the praying hands of an old god – finger tips touching, the space between – an inverted heart.  And tonight’s bonfire, toasted with local ale and cider and a hog-roast would be a fitting farewell to the village.

Others were winding their way up the hill now.  It seemed everyone was on their way, snaking up through the dusk. Trestle tables appeared, local cider from Dove Farm frothing from demijohns, a fire crackled into paraffin life under a spit. Later, meat would roast. Someone with a head-torch flitted ghostlike behind the screen from behind which the fireworks would later scream.

Laughter now, sparklers ignited, neighbours joked, the cider doing its job, the smell of gently roasting pork – someone forced a glass in his hand;  a hug from someone unfamiliar smelling of cold tweed and then he held a roll – the heat from the roasted pork seeping through  dough, crust and paper, warming his hand. An alien feeling crept over him and threatened to overcome him. It was a sense of absolute belonging, of acceptance, of worth.

Someone swapped his glass for a burning torch – a medieval thing that fitted his grasp, and he was pushed forward through the crowd which opened to receive him like royalty. And now the people chanted down from ten. On cue he thrust the flame into the great pile and whoosh! A gasp from the crowd and then even applause. It seemed he was a natural fire maker. He was helped back from the heat as the fire took and the fireworks reached whining to heaven and fell spent into hell. The warmth of the flames melted the people into a unified whole, a village.

‘Hey, Mike that’s quite a fire you’ve made. Well done, well done!’  The playful thump on the shoulder from whoever – the butcher, Mike thought – and he lost half his onion from his roll. He struggled to remember the man’s name.

‘Sorry, son! Any’ows, it’s a pity your parents aren’t here to see this, eh?’

Jacob! That was his name. He remembered the man’s large, ruddy face serving diced steak across the counter in the butchers. He’d also seen him at the late night parties; always in the middle of a group.

Mike turned to look him in the eye, the way he’d practiced. ‘Yeah, they would have liked this a lot. Still, they couldn’t do anything about it.’

Jacob regarded him with cold blue eyes. ‘No, I suppose they couldn’t.’ And there was a smile under the opaque ice of those eyes. ‘They also would ‘ave appreciated the sacrifice. They never lost faith in you, son.’ He walked away then and joined the rest of the village as it turned almost mechanically to face Mike. Forming a giant ellipse, the village smiled at him and Mike was the eye’s dark centre.

And he wished his parents could see him now. They would be proud of what he’d become. He stared at the pyre’s heart where his mum lay wrapped in his dad’s arms, locked together in a last, warm embrace, wearing the robes they had worn in life but never in front of him; the same robes he saw surrounding him now. 

That morning, before the sun had risen, he’d hauled them up the slope on the sled his Dad had made him for the snowy slopes of his boyhood. And now, after the sun had set, he missed them.


Freya watched as the tiny crab’s serrated claw combed the scarlet shock of spiny straggle weed which it wore like a panache. It reminded her of a peacock punk’s Mohican. Freya had been a beautiful punk once, quite notorious in the seaside town where she grew up. She imagined her fifteen year old self outside Woolworths on Felixstowe High Street, her platform boots buckled and almost high enough to meet her tight, black, slashed skirt. Her hair had been the colour of new blood and had stood nearly eight inches above her shaved temples.

This was not a true memory, just the image from a photograph taken by a friend whose name she had forgotten – a Polaroid she kept in her bedside drawer .It was all that she had of what she had once been. The image is vivid: the teenage Freya, resplendent in a cinched red tartan shirt in front of the store’s plate glass, backlit by the traffic’s reflection. Either side of her, two relatively drab mates – rivals for her affection – wore green tartan with safety pins and chains, they formed a setting for the jewel they both coveted.  Freya smiled and imagined the scowl she might have aimed at a passer-by, mesmerized by Freya’s Egyptian eye make-up, ‘You gotta problem?’

Oh she was badass! Once upon a time.

The crab’s own headdress swayed jauntily as it skittered across the pool-bed. Freya held the green seaweed from the rock – its colour shimmering as the sun’s heat shook the water’s surface. She thumbed her wedding ring, spinning it on her tanned finger, looser now, she should take it off or risk losing it forever amongst the vibrant foliage of the pool.

The hermit crab, apparently uncomfortable with the attention, scuttled coyly back to its crevice.  A starfish with 14 legs, deep red with orange stripes, lay waiting for the tide, content to be still. Or it could just be dead. Sometimes it is difficult to tell. Inaction might be as good as dead. Her knees ached and she shifted her rip-off crocs and pulled her head from the pool. She contemplated the oxymoronic phrase, ‘as good as dead’ as she looked over to Bryn twenty feet away, his back to her, arse in the air as if praying in the shallows, wearing those ridiculously inadequate trunks. His head was totally submerged – in ‘his own little world’. As always.

Freya got up and surveyed the beach, deliberately twisting her shoulders and shifting her feet in the hard sand. A panorama of almost total isolation. Earlier there had been others on the beach. Families out for the day, couples old and new and the odd singleton beach-comber head down, carrying their treasure in a bucket. Freya kept her head level as she slowly completed her revolution, periscope like, until again she focused on Bryn. How can he keep so still? He’d been in exactly the same position since they had first selected their pools, head submerged, his snorkel’s orange tip just above the surface, knees on the sand. Where does he go?

The sun’s searing light or Bryn’s trunks threatened a migraine and so she reset her goggles, bit down on her mouth piece and surrendered her head to the relative cool of her pool.

A beadlet anemone, the colour of new passion, was filtering the water between two large limpets.  Beautiful, their translucent flesh seemingly vulnerable yet Freya knew that they were quite deadly. Covered in stinging nematocysts, they inject their prey with neurotoxic venom. Simple, perfect and ruby precious. This one had been hiding and was only revealed when the tiny tsunami Freya’s head had brought to the pool had pushed aside a swathe of enteromorpha from the bedrock.  The anemone stood gorgeous between the two limpets like an alien red oasis at the foot of the pyramids, standing aloof from the desert of sand that carpeted the rock pool. Freya moved her face closer. A puddle of water was collecting at the bottom of her mask; she ignored it but the added refraction seemed to magnify the anemone and she could see the tiny stinging hairs that lined the tentacles. She reached out and stroked the tentacles gently. The cells within exploded and the microscopic harpoons laced with poison buried themselves in her finger. She traced little circles with her thumb over her middle and forefinger savouring the stickiness of the attack. Freya knew the beadlet could not harm her; perhaps a slight numbness that’s all, but the ferocity of the attack always fascinated her. The angry red tendrils and sensuous body were no false warnings. She knew that the tacky sheen on her fingers would last for hours.

As she rubbed her thumb over her fingers, heightening the tingling of the toxins, she regarded the anemone, pushing her face even closer so that the tendrils retracted again, leaving a perfect orb of glistening beauty. Freya waited. Immobile. Slowly, like a flower opening in time lapse, the anemone once again spread her arms, and Kali like the tentacles danced again, swishing the tiny hair like felli, beckoning her prey to her embrace. 

Freya saw her hermit crab skulk behind an empty whelk shell not far from the anemone. Mindful of the anemone’s sticky toxins, Freya used her left hand to lift the crab and inspected it as its legs disappeared into the shell’s dark centre. The red crest defiantly declared that his majesty was at home – just not receiving visitors. She put the shell down away from the anemone. Safe now. After a second or two the crab re-emerged and scurried to hide in a barnacle lined crack in the rock but not before waving its claw furiously at Freya. She laughed through her snorkel; a hollow alien sound in her ears.

She slithered further into her pool feeling the warm water caress her skin and gently invade her swimming costume. Warmer now and lying suspended in the water Freya watched the drama unfold around her. She felt as if she was slowly disappearing into the rock pool. First dissolving into transparency and then molecule by molecule vanishing, becoming one with pool and leaving the other world behind. The pool lulled her into a stupor and she was only partially aware of the star fish’s salutation: a kaleidoscopic ripple of its legs to welcome her into its world. All life was here. Including death. All had their place. She watched a swarm of sand fleas progress across the bottom of the pool. A blue sail jellyfish drifted on an invisible current and a salt water crayfish, armoured like a lichen green scorpion, peered from its fortress. She found herself escaping into this world worthy of storytelling and at its heart was the anemone, its Queen. Freya merely an invisible, mute spectator to all this life.

A thought occurred to her but dimly through her reverie as she sought again the anemone from behind its screen of verdant foliage. She had read that anemones can reproduce asexually. Their beauty’s function is not to attract mates.

She thought of the Polaroid again. She couldn’t remember the names of either of the boys she was with. She remembered that she had gone out with one of them but not even his name. She wondered whether if it was not for that picture, would she have forgotten them totally?

When she surfaced the other world had changed. The sun had gone and a greying patchy cloud had obscured the blue and its reflection had dappled the surface of the sea. And the sea was closer. Freya’s wet skin cooled and her head cleared. She shivered. The pool was now much warmer than the air and she contemplated giving in to the lure of her pool once again.

She looked towards Bryn. He had moved slightly, leaning out over the pool, clearly intent on touching something just out of his reach. His attitude was almost predatory, poised over the lip of the pool, quite dynamically – in a most unlike Bryn gesture of eagerness.

What was wrong with him?

She waited, hoping for the inevitable slip and splutter as the tip of his snorkel disappeared below the surface. Instead his head and shoulders submerged slowly much like whale’s back. Then he disappeared. Completely. The pool must have been far deeper than her own.  She waited. Nothing. Not a ripple on the surface of the pool whose surface reflected the clouded sky.

She started to count.


This morning in the B&B, the loud man from Bristol had told the breakfast room that he’d seen a conger eel in a rock pool on this beach. Was that what Bryn had seen; had reached for? She stared fascinated by his absence from the pool’s edge.  Congers could be big, especially the females. They were, according to Bristol Man, the biggest eels in the world with rows and rows of sharp teeth. Bryn wouldn’t have tried to touch one, would he? Probably.


From the shore with the sea behind her and the water about her feet, Freya mused that she would have looked tiny, isolated and floating above a devouring void between earth and sky. She remembered another photograph, from a tabloid newspaper, of a mother running towards a Tsunami. A mother whose child’s back was towards the sea, unaware of the wall of water racing towards him. There was no one to see Freya. No one to photograph her. She was now completely alone. She stood poised like a caryatid, rapt by the grey, green puddle of salt water, not thirty feet from where she stood, and by its emptiness.

Twenty Two

Freya could have walked across the tide sculpted sand in seconds and seen for herself how Bryn was. She could have picked her way through torn kelp, fields of razor shells and necklaces of smaller pools to see if he was alright. She did not want to know. The vacuum his absence had occasioned was too compelling. She stared, counting the seconds, weighing the possibilities. She stood frozen, a statue of some aquatic demi-goddess, her once lost empire advancing like the tide as she waited.


Several lifetimes she had lived before he emerged calmly from the pool’s depths, standing on the bottom, the water to his chest. No splutter just a practiced blow to clear his snorkel.

He saw her watching him. He waved and tried to smile round his mouthpiece. He looked happy. She was thankful that her true emotions were hidden by the cyclops lens and rictus grin of her mask and snorkel. She waved back and pointed to the sky behind him and the advancing tide. He turned and looked, shrugged sadly and held up five fingers and descended once again into his pool.

He’ll probably tell her later what he’d found.

Five more minutes. Freya shivered again and returned to her pool. The anemone was feeding. It held in its arms a tiny naked crab. The shell had been flung to the side and lay empty at the base of the rock. She recognised the shell – its panache ripped apart. The little crab, vulnerable as a baby, cradled aloft like a sacrifice. Its struggles were visibly weakening as the toxins did their job.

To either side of the anemone the limpets stood impassive and immobile; their tortoise shell exterior a testament to their resilience, their devotion. Freya gently picked up the hermit crab’s shell. For an instant she hated the unctuous, scarlet mass of the anemone and her fingers longed to rip its coldness from the rock.

A tiny claw waved one last time before disappearing through the arms into the anemone’s maul.

As she watched, a microscopic cloud like a fungal spore was ejected from the centre of the anemone. A cloud of life through death surrounded the three figures. Freya’s anger dissolved as myriad forms including shrimps, sand fleas, shell fish, tiny green diving beetles and all she could not see come to dine.

Freya broke the surface for the last time that day and pushed her mask up to her forehead allowing the trapped salt water to escape and run down her face.

She looked for her husband. He had just surfaced and their eyes found each other at the same time.

The tide had turned and was rushing towards them. Had they waited too long?

She watched him launch himself from the pool. He seemed unconcerned by the time or tide. As he peeled off his mask he grinned at her, all white teeth in a tanned face. ‘I found something wonderful, Freya!’

They headed off towards the dunes and he tells her of his discovery. She takes his hand in hers, his fingers sticky from anemones.